What does a retired CEO do when he no longer has thousands of people to boss around?
If you’re Jack Ward, who ran Russell Corp., the sports apparel maker bought by Warren Buffett’s company three years ago, you look for a meaningful cause. For Ward, 66, that turned out to be working with an organization that’s had success educating inner-city kids — KIPP Metro Atlanta.
“I’m in the fortunate position to be able to choose what I do, so I invest my time in what has real meaning to me and can have real impact,” Ward said recently. “You’d like to save the world, but you can’t.”
Ward has put his resources — including some of his foundation’s money — behind KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), which operates two charter middle schools in Atlanta and one in south Fulton. The innovative program targets disadvantaged Atlanta Public School and Fulton County children who often are way behind their grade level in basic skills. The 700 students are selected through a lottery system — there’s no special test to get in. Currently, virtually all are minorities, 70 percent of whom are eligible for a subsidized lunch.
KIPP, a national organization with 82 schools across the country, has been able to improve student performance, in part, by extending the school day and year. Students attend from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, plus a half-day every other Saturday and three extra weeks during the summer. KIPP also extends the concept of middle school, expanding it from the fifth through eighth grades.
“Middle school is absolutely critical,” Ward said. “Kids are already behind. If you lose them in middle school, you lose them. … My wife and I were so impressed with what they were accomplishing, I wanted to get more involved.”
Those accomplishments, based largely on dedicated teachers and high expectations for kids’ achievement, include significant improvement in basic skills. Just one of many impressive stats: Students enter the fifth grade scoring in the bottom third nationally in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, but leave after four years scoring in the top third.
Like most heavy-hitting business types, Ward liked KIPP’s results-oriented approach. So, if he was going to get involved, he had to figure out where he could produce results. It wasn’t hard — on the local board of directors specializing in finance and strategic planning.
“Getting academic results is not enough,” said David Jernigan, executive director of KIPP Metro Atlanta. “We need business leaders to help us make sure we’re running this effectively and efficiently, and being good stewards of the tax dollars.”
Financially, KIPP charter schools get 85 percent to 90 percent of their funds from the public school districts where they operate. Additional money needs to be raised for expenses not paid by the districts, including refurbishing old school buildings and funding a program that follows up with the kids after they enter high school.
Strategically, Ward and the other board members help the KIPP administrators figure out expansion issues. For example, in July KIPP is starting a fourth middle school and hopes to start a high school in the fall of 2011.
“We want to help the most students we can,” he said.
Another new life started in retirement.
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